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Katherine Dunham Pratt

biography

Katherine Dunham Anthropologist, Ethnologue, Dancer, Choreographer,
Creator of the Dunham Technique, Scholar, Activist and Humanist

Marie-Christine and Katherine
Katherine Dunham Pratt with her daughter, Marie-Christine.

Legendary dancer, choreographer and anthropologist, Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Chicago, to an African American father and a French Canadian mother. At age eight she amazed and scandalized the elders of her church by doing a performance of decidedly non-religious songs at a cabaret party, in order to help the church who was having a financial crisis.

She never thought about a career in dance. Instead, she consented to her family's wish that she become a teacher and followed her brother, Albert Dunham jr. to the University of Chicago where she became one of the first African American women to attend this University, earning bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology.

But she still continued to dance as a student of Ludmilla Speranzeva of the Moscow Theater, Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page.

She founded the Negro Dance Group following graduation. They performed  at the Chicago Beaux Arts Theater in ‘A Negro Rhapsody’, and also danced with the Chicago Opera Company.  One of the performances was attended by Mrs. Alfred Rosenwald Stern, who was sufficiently impressed to arrange an invitation for Dunham to appear before the Rosenwald Foundation which offered to finance any study contributing toward her dance career that she cared to name. Thus armed with foundation money, Dunham spent most of the next two years in the Caribbean studying all aspects of dance and the motivations behind dance. Although she traveled throughout the region, including Trinidad and Jamaica, it was in Haiti that she found special personal and artistic resonances. She wrote some scholarly essays during her trip and sold lighter magazine articles about the Caribbean under the name of K.Dunn.

Katherine Dunham revolutionized American dance in the 1930's by going to the roots of black dance and ritual and transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all.

US postage stamp
U.S. postage stamp issued in 2012.

She is a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography; she is one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. She showed the world that African American heritage is beautiful.
She completed groundbreaking work on Caribbean and Brazilian dance anthropology as a new academic discipline. She is credited for bringing these Caribbean and African influences to a European-dominated dance world.

She returned to the United States in 1936 informed by new methods of movement and expression. Her presentation included photos, films, writings and her own demonstration which was an innovation in itself.
She then created the Dunham Technique that transformed the world of dance.
 
In 1937, Katherine Dunham met John Pratt, one of America’s most highly regarded theatrical designers. They married in 1949 to adopt in Paris a fourteen months old French child, Marie-Christine. Katherine Dunham and John Pratt formed a powerful personal and creative team that lasted until his death in 1986. 

Dunham’s first school was in Chicago. Then in 1944 she rented ‘Caravan Hall’, Isadora Duncan’s studio in New York, and opened the K.D school of Arts and Research. In 1945 she opened the famous Dunham School at 220 W 43rd Street in New York where such artists as Marlon Brando and James Dean took classes.

Dunham's big breakthrough to popular recognition took place after she moved to New York in 1939 and opened that February at the Windsor Theater in a program called Tropics and le Jazz Hot.
It was supposed to be a one-night event but demand was such that she performed for 13 weeks, and followed this up with her own Tropical Revue, which was a hit not only in the United States but also in Canada.
She appeared at the Martin Beck Theater in October 1940 as Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, which she also choreographed with George Balanchine.

She then founded the Katherine Dunham Dance group - which later developed into the famous Katherine Dunham Company - devoted to African-American and Afro-Caribbean dance. She also worked as a director in the Federal Theater Project, the government-sponsored relief program for artists that also nurtured such talents as Orson Welles and John Houseman.

She co-directed and danced in Carib Song at the Adelphi Theater in New York in 1945, and was producer, director, and star of Bal Nègre at the Belasco Theater in New York in 1946.

Katherine Dunham is credited with developing one of the most important pedagogy for teaching dance which is still used throughout the world. Called the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms.  

Some of her many original works include:
Batucada, L'ag'ya, Shango, Veracruzana, Afrique, Ñañigo, Choros, Frevo, Rites de Passage, Los Indios, Samba, Tango, Barrelhouse, Floyd’s guitar Blues, Flaming Youth, Southland, The Diamond thief.

The Dunham company toured for two decades, stirring audiences around the globe in 57 countries, with their dynamic and highly theatrical performances.

Their first appearance in London was at the Prince of Wales Theater in June 1948 in Caribbean Rhapsody, which was already a success in the United States, and with which she was to tour Europe.
It was the first time Europe had seen black dance as an art form and also the first time that the special elements of American modern dance appeared outside America.

Her mastery of body movement was considered "phenomenal." She was hailed for her smooth and fluent choreography and dominated a stage with what has been described as “an unmitigated radiant force providing beauty with a feminine touch full of variety and nuance.”

The impact of the Dunham show on the European post war public was fantastic, it had never been exposed to anything so culturally different and with such a power of total involvement. It was much more than the enthusiastic reaction to a brilliant theatrical experience. It was the exposure to a different culture, to a sense of magic and of beauty they knew nothing about.

Katherine Dunham  also appeared in several films, solo or with her dance company:
Carnaval of rythms (1939), USA  - Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), USA - Stormy Weather (1943), USA -  Casbah (1948), USA - Botta e Risposta (1950), Italy - Musica en la Noche (1955), Mexico - Liebes  Sender (1954), Germany – Mambo - (1954), Italy Karaibishe Rythmen (1960 Vienna)
Numerous television appearances around the world.

Films K.D only choreographed: Pardon my Sarong (1942), USA - Green Mansions  (1958),USA - The Bible (1964), (by John Houston, shot in Rome)

In 1962 Katherine Dunham invited the dancers of the “Compagnie Royale du Maroc” who by permission of King Hassan II appeared in her show Bamboche.

Dunham choreographed Aida  in 1963 at the Met and continued to secure her place in artistic history becoming the first African American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera.
She was so popular that she recorded several records for the Decca label, sung by her with the company.
The last time the Dunham company performed was in 1965 at the Apollo theater.  
 
Katherine Dunham also wrote several books:
Journey to Accompong about her experiences with the Maroons (1946).
Las Danzas de Haiti in Mexico (1947)  - Les Danses d’Haiti, published in France with the preface of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1957) - A Touch of Innocence - an autobiography of her childhood (1959) –
Island Possessed – Haiti (1969) - Kasamance, an African fable (1974).
Also numerous articles and short stories written during her touring years.

Main unpublished works
Minefields  - her complete unfinished autobiography - Excerpts of it in ‘Kaiso’
Berenson letters – (her long correspondence with Bernard Berenson)

In 1965 Dunham was invited as Artist in Residence at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where she also directed a production of Faust, and she established a dance anthropology program at SIU in Edwardsville.
She then opened the ”Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum” in East St. Louis, Illinois and in 1967 created “The Performing Arts Training Center”. The Centers are the St. Louis Metropolitan region’s only multi-disciplinary arts organizations devoted to the study, appreciation and celebration of diverse cultures.

She devoted much of her talent and insight to re-directing the energy of violent street gangs through the performing arts.
Years later, she renamed the Centers “The Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities”.

In 1966 President Leopold Sedar Senghor invited Katherine Dunham to Dakar for the famous ‘Festival des Arts Nègres,’ as Director of the ‘Ballet National’ and consultant for the year of the duration of the Festival.

In 1972 Katherine Dunham choreographed and directed Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha at Wolftrap in Washington, then in Atlanta and St. Louis.

Throughout the years, Katherine Dunham continued to fight for racial equality, steadfastly refusing to perform at segregated venues in the United States and using her performances to highlight discrimination.
 
She was also politically active on both domestic and international rights issues and made national and international headlines by staging a hunger strike of 47 days in 1993 at the age of 84, to protest the U.S. government's repatriation policy for Haitian immigrants. She attempted to raise people's consciousness in the United States about issues in Haiti.

By that time, she was a living, breathing historical institution in and of herself.

Throughout her distinguished career, Dunham earned numerous honorary doctorates, awards and honors. They are innumerable.

A few of the main ones are: the Presidential Medal of Arts, The Kennedy Center Honors with Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Elia Kazan and Virgil Thompson, the plaqued'Honneur and the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce Award, Southern Cross of Brazil, Grand Cross of Haiti, NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, The Albert Schweitzer Music Award at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Academy Laureate, and the Urban Leagues’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Southern Cross of Brazil, Grand Cross of Haiti, NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, Lincoln Academy Laureate, and the Urban Leagues’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Miss Dunham was one of 75 women whose lives were celebrated in the book, ‘I Have A Dream.’

A star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Women's International Center was privileged to offer the Living Legacy Award to a magnificent teacher, dancer, choreographer, writer and humanitarian.

Jacob’s Pillow gave a special Tribute to Katherine Dunham for her 93rd birthday.

Until the end of her life she has been the recipient of innumerable plaques, proclamations, Honorary doctorates for Fine Arts, Humane Letters, Literature, one of the last was for Fine Arts from Harvard.
In 2000 Katherine Dunham is named America’s irreplaceable Dance Treasure.

The living Dunham tradition has persisted. She was a woman far ahead of her time. Her technique is "a way of life”.

Katherine Dunham died on 21 May 2006.


 

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